Stearns County couple Lucas and Alise Sjostrom took home first place in the Young Farmers & Ranchers Excellence in Agriculture contest, spotlighting young Farm Bureau members who are influential in the industry. It was the couple's first year competing in the annual tradition.

"Both strive to advocate for agriculture by being able to bring over 100,000 people to their farm and being a voice for farmers at the local, state and national levels," said the press release announcing the honor.

Finalists for the Excellence in Agriculture honor, which recognizes "agricultural enthusiasts" who have not earned a majority of their income from ag production in recent years, were presented virtually this year on Nov. 23. Competitors are evaluated on their understanding of relevant ag issues, leadership experiences, Farm Bureau involvement and their ability to communicate their agricultural story.

Along with advancing to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting held Jan. 9-13, the Sjostroms received a $500 prize and trips to conferences to be held in Sioux Falls, S.D., and in Washington D.C., next year.

Lucas Sjostrom said he and his wife are actually grateful for the national contest being virtual this year, saving them a trip across country during a very busy time in their careers. They started working on their application part of the contest back in September, he said.

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"My wife's in the cheese business, and we knew we wouldn't have time this time of year," he said.

Now they'll have more time to sharpen their presentation side of the competition. Lucas said the Minnesota Farm Bureau shared applications of past state winners of the award with the Sjostroms after they won at the state level, which he said was helpful for preparing for the national stage.

"And because Minnesota has been fortunate to have a couple of (national) winners in the past 10 years, we have some really good people to lean on," Lucas said.



He said those same people have also reached out to volunteer their services to the couple as they prep for the competition in January.

Lucas, 33, and Alise, 35, operate a cheese plant with their family on a farm near Brooten, Minn. Alise works full time as the president of the Redhead Creamery cheese company, while Lucas is the executive director for Minnesota Milk.

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It's the ability by the Sjostrom couple to handle all those moving parts well together that made them the perfect competitors in the MFB contest.

"Collaboration just has to work for us, at this point in life, with dairy farms, cheese plants, our jobs and our family. You can schedule out your week, but that's not going to hold," he said. "Any of those could have a crisis at anytime, and we've both grown up with that and definitely lived it the past seven, eight years."

While the competition can be hard on couples as an extra task to manage, contest judges commented on how the team of Lucas and Alise had no dominant person.

At home, Lucas and Alise are raising a 6-year-old, 4-year-old and an infant. The issue of daycare availability in rural areas came up several times in their application and presentation.

The daycare that the family relies on had plenty of room when their first two children reached the age of attending, but it'll be a year until there's room for their third child.

"Since the pandemic started, it's probably been the most phone calls and work I've ever done, with what the dairy industry has been through in the past nine months," Lucas said. "We've had some losses and some big wins, but all of that has been with my baby on my lap, because that wouldn't work in a cheese plant."

The runner-up for the excellence in agriculture award was Corey Ramsden Scott of Washington-Ramsey County. The runner-up will receive a $250 cash prize. Other top finalists in Excellence in Agriculture were Mark and Sara Hewitt of Le Sueur County.